Nearly 1,700 science teachers flocked to NSTA's Western Regional Convention in Salt Lake City last week, taking full advantage of the vast professional development opportunities offered by NSTA staff, expert presenters, and fellow teachers.
The convention featured some 300 presentations, workshops, short courses, and field trips, covering all grade levels and science disciplines. It also showcased the products and services of more than 200 exhibitors from the business and nonprofit sectors, while offering ample opportunities for attendees to share knowledge informally - either through organized social events or, just as likely, through impromptu conversations.
The Mormon Temple, located just
a few blocks from the convention center
A previous article
summarized the key events of day one, including a poignant presentation by former NASA engineer and best-selling author Homer Hickam. This article focuses on the events of the last two days, including reflections by attendees on their convention experiences. Like the previous article, this article does not attempt to cover the convention in its entirety - given the extensive array of offerings, that would be an impossible task. Rather, it seeks to convey a flavor of the rich professional development opportunities that have become the trademarks of each and every NSTA convention.
Days Two and Three: The Fun and Learning Continues
With dozens of offerings to choose from, convention attendees faced some tough decisions on Friday and Saturday. Thumbing through their convention programs, they carefully studied the options: a presentation on the integration of science and Olympic sports, a geological tour of Utah's famed canyons, a workshop on the physics of music and sound waves, and dozens of other offerings, numerous and diverse enough to satisfy teachers of virtually every grade, content specialty, and experience level. While many sessions deserve recognition, the following represent a small sample of events that, by all accounts, were clear "hits" among attendees.
Standing outside the exhibit hall,
attendees are ready for a day of learning.
A Presentation on "Edible Science" Activities
"Being able to name a term doesn't mean students understand it," said presenter Betty Crocker (not to be confused with her culinary namesake), who encouraged attendees to let students "experience" a scientific phenomenon before teaching the abstract concept connected to it. In accordance with this approach, Crocker demonstrated how teachers could use foods as simple as apples and potatoes to teach students the basics of data collection, observation, and analysis. "The worker is the learner," Crocker told a jam-packed classroom of attendees, who were treated not just to innovative teaching practices, but to a few tasty snacks as well.
Attendees at the "Edible Science" workshop
snack on their science experiments.
Demonstrations Guaranteed to Get "Oohs" and "Ahs"
Science wizard Steve Spangler dazzled hundreds of convention-goers with jaw-dropping demonstrations that teachers could use to impress upon students the wonders of science. "Yes, the demonstrations should be memorable, but they shouldn't just be shows," Spangler said, stressing that the true purpose of any demonstration is to serve as a springboard for deeper classroom learning experiences. He also emphasized that effective demonstrations, even flashy ones, need not require teachers to break the bank. "There are so many low-cost, easy-to-do demonstrations out there," he noted. "You just have to know where to look. You'd be amazed at how many great teaching tools you can find at Wal-Mart for five bucks."
An attendee at Steve Spangler's demonstration
causes an egg to fall into a cup of green liquid.
A Workshop on "Designer Sneakers"
Led by a group of volunteer teachers who call themselves the "Polymer Ambassadors," attendees mixed Elmer's glue and borax to simulate the process for manufacturing athletic shoe soles (which are examples of man-made polymers). "Students at all grade levels, but especially middle school students, really have fun doing this," said Lynn Higgins, head of the Ambassadors. "And in the process, students actually learn quite a bit about making polymers, an important field in chemistry." Higgins also stressed that her crew of ambassadors makes sure to highlight activities that all teachers can implement easily. "For what we’re doing here today, all you need is a tub of glue and a box of borax, and you have enough supplies for several years worth of experiments."
Teachers show off their "glue-goo" at
a workshop on designing sneaker soles.
A Workshop on Population and Environmental Issues
Workshop leader Diane Boyd, representing the nonprofit organization Facing the Future, demonstrated several hands-on activities designed to get students thinking about issues such as population growth, resource scarcity, and the ecological impacts of students' day-to-day activities (eating, driving, wearing clothes, etc.). For example, in one memorable activity, Boyd used a chocolate cake to demonstrate issues of global resource consumption. As part of the exercise, a handful of workshop attendees—representing North America—received 60 percent of the cake, while the vast majority of attendees—representing Asia—received only a small slice. "Does this seem fair?" Boyd asked the classroom. "Your students might not think so. But the key is to always leave them with a chance to come up with solutions to problems. I would ask them: How can we create a more sustainable world?"
Let the chips fall where they may: Teachers
play a game to simulate the effects of
After the workshop, which offered free curriculum materials, attendees expressed delight with what they learned. "Thumbs up," said Jamie Ellsbury, a second-year middle school teacher from Wyoming. "The workshop was great because it gave me tons of activities that tie into my state's standards." Her colleague, 27-year teaching veteran Penny Hutchison added, "I'll bake the cake."
Raffle Prizes and More
As the convention came to a close on Saturday morning, NSTA staff members announced the winners of the convention's two raffles. When all was said and done, nearly 50 attendees walked away with thousands of dollars worth of prizes, all of which were donated by convention exhibitors. Prizes included educational books, CD-ROMs, high-tech lab equipment, and gift certificates worth up to $100.
NSTA staff member Clarise Cannings
mixes the raffle entries.
And as is the case at every NSTA convention, many staff members were on hand from start to finish to answer questions about NSTA's various publications, products, services, awards programs, and professional development opportunities. In particular, attendees were encouraged to drop by NSTA’s booth to learn about SciLinks, a free service sponsored by NSTA that connects content from NSTA journals and selected textbooks to pertinent, trustworthy Internet links. Many attendees also browsed through NSTA's Science Store, which offered a wide range of high-quality science education materials and books.
NSTA staff were on hand to answer questions
about NSTA's various programs and services.
Why They Came: Camaraderie and Lots of Low-Cost Ideas
In talking to attendees about what they liked about this and past NSTA conventions, some common threads emerged. For starters, many attendees said the convention is an important way to break the isolation of the classroom. Teaching can be a lonely profession, many said, yet good teaching depends on meaningful interaction with colleagues. "One of the main reasons I come is for the inspiration I get from other science teachers - and for the sense of renewal and excitement that comes from sharing ideas," said Garry Mowery, a high school biology teacher who was attending his fifth NSTA convention.
But in addition to fostering a sense of collegiality, members also expressed some pretty practical reasons for attending, such as the wide availability of free or low-cost resources that teachers can use in the classroom as soon as they return to their schools. "What I love about these conventions is that I go home with a huge packet of materials that I can use first thing Monday morning," said Pat Brown, an elementary school science teacher from Utah.
"And the activities are set up so that almost all the supplies you need are free or are things you can get easily get out of your backyard or kitchen," added Suzanne Conrad, a high school science/technology teacher from New Mexico, who was attending the same workshop as Ms. Brown.
Many attendees also praised the hands-on nature of the activities emphasized at the convention. "What I find most useful are all the lab and demonstration ideas," said Duane Dyer, a retired army major who is now a middle school physical sciences teacher in Utah. "In my experience, demonstrations and labs whet students' appetite for learning. The more you can show them, the more you can teach them. Besides, I'd rather have the kids do the work than stand up in front of the classroom and do all the talking myself."
NSTA member Duane Dyer:
"I'd rather have the kids do the work
than do all the talking myself."
And yes, sometimes, a trip to an NSTA convention can even inspire jealousy - at least temporarily. "After these conventions, I go back to my school and brag about all the cool ideas I came across," said Susan Goettig, a middle school earth science teacher. "Other teachers will look into my classroom and say, 'Where did you get that idea, where did you learn that activity?' And I tell them: 'At the NSTA convention. Go check it out.'"
NSTA is holding two more regional conventions this fall. The first will take place in Columbus, OH, from November 8 to 10, and the second will be in Memphis, TN, from December 6 to 8. NSTA's national convention will be held next year in San Diego, CA, from March 27 to 30. To find out more about these conventions, or to register, visit the conventions area of the NSTA website.